Vote-tallying websites might say 100 percent of the precincts are in for California’s primary election, but don’t let that mislead you — it will take days and perhaps even weeks for many more absentee and provisional ballots to be tallied. Plus, the state’s unusual “top two” system means we need both first- and second-place winners to understand the full ramifications of some contests.
But several key races have already been called, including California’s governor and Senate primaries. And though some House races are still close, the picture that’s generally emerging is a positive one for Democrats who were deathly afraid of being shut out of key races this fall.
So here, from the preliminary results, are some early national-level takeaways from California’s 2018 primaries.
Winner: House Democrats, for not being locked out of key races (so far)
California presents tremendous opportunities for Democrats in their quest to retake the House of Representatives this fall. Hillary Clinton won a whopping seven districts in the state that are currently represented by Republicans — most of which are top targets for Democrats this year. A couple of other incumbent Republicans in the state could be vulnerable in a wave year too.
But in recent months, some Democrats feared a slow-motion disaster was unfolding in several key races. The Golden State uses the “top two” primary system, which pits all candidates of all parties against one another and lets only the first- and second-place finishers move on to the general election.
The party’s fear was that in many competitive races where several Democratic candidates were splitting the primary vote, two Republicans would win first and second place in the primary — locking out Democrats from the general election. Democrats thought a lockout was at least possible in as many as five GOP-held districts they’d hoped to target. So the party poured in more than $7 million and adopted aggressive strategies to try to make sure at least one Democrat would advance.
And if current results hold, they’ll get at least one Democrat in the top two in all five districts they were worried about. Now, one, California’s 10th, represented by Rep. Jeff Denham (R), remains quite close — Democrat Josh Harder is currently in second place, about 1.3 percentage points ahead of a third-place Republican. But in the districts for which they were most afraid of lockouts (the open 39th and 49th, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s 48th District), preliminary results suggest a Democrat will get through in every one.
Winner: Gavin Newsom
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has been working toward this moment for a long time. The former San Francisco mayor kicked off his gubernatorial campaign all the way back in February 2015 — months before Donald Trump even entered the presidential race.
That proved to be an apt strategy in this enormous state, where campaigning is remarkably expensive. Newsom locked down the Democratic establishment’s support and staked a claim as the early Democratic frontrunner. And the Republican field looked weak, as is now usual in this increasingly blue state.
Still, there was one catch — Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, also jumped in the race, and wealthy charter school supporters made sure his bid would be well-funded. Villaraigosa hoped to win enough moderates and perhaps even Republicans to take second place in the top-two primaries and battle it out with Newsom this fall.
Newsom very much did not want that to happen. He understandably calculated that if he and a Republican came in first and second place in the primary, he’d be the all-but-assured winner in the fall due to partisanship. In contrast, if it was Newsom versus fellow Democrat Villaraigosa, Newsom would still be the favorite, but an odd turn in the race wouldn’t be completely out of the question.
So Newsom began conspicuously airing ads “attacking” the apparent top Republican in the field, business executive John Cox, saying Cox “stands with Donald Trump and the NRA.” This was pretty obviously an attempt to help Cox advance — attacking him from the left, so as to unite the GOP vote around him.
Meanwhile, Republicans like President Trump also wanted Cox to advance, because they feared their turnout in key House races would suffer if they didn’t have a governor candidate (or Senate candidate) on the ballot.
In High Tax, High Crime California, be sure to get out and vote for Republican John Cox for Governor. He will make a BIG difference!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2018
In the end, that’s what happened: Cox finished well ahead of Villaraigosa. Which means Newsom got the outcome he wanted and is the very overwhelming favorite to be the next governor of California.
Loser: self-funding candidates who didn’t win the lottery
Some key House primaries in California featured truly mind-boggling amounts of money being thrown around — and much of it ended up going down the drain.
The biggest belly flop came in the San Diego-area 49th District, where real estate investor Paul Kerr (D) spent more than $4 million of his own money but got less than 5 percent of the vote and finished in seventh place.
Also in the 49th, nonprofit CEO (and billionaire’s granddaughter) Sara Jacobs (D) put in $1.5 million — and currently, she’s in third place with 15.5 percent. At press time, it was lawyer Mike Levin, who didn’t have his own fortune to rely on and fundraised impressively instead, who was the Democrat set to advance to the general election there.
Orange County’s 39th District also featured a battle among Democratic self-funders, including retired insurance executive Andy Thorburn ($2.7 million, fourth place, 9 percent of the vote) and pediatrician Mai Khanh Tran ($700,000, eighth place, 4.9 percent). The mysterious self-funded candidacy of doctor Herbert Lee, which some suspected was a plot to split the Democratic vote so two Republicans could advance, also flopped ($1 million, ninth place, 4.1 percent).
But the 39th also saw a big cash infusion from Gil Cisneros (D), who won a $266 million Mega Millions lottery jackpot in 2010. At press time, Cisneros’s investment of more than $3.5 million proved good for about 19.4 percent of the vote and second place, so Democrats will now pin their hopes on him for the general election.
Loser: people left off the voting rolls in LA County
California’s election administration — with its very slow vote-counting — has long been a source of frustration to East Coat journalists who find ourselves staying up late at night for polls to close in Pacific Time only to realize that nothing has actually been resolved.
But things got exceptionally bad this week, as a printing error affecting roughly one-third of the precincts in Los Angeles County ended up leaving more than 110,000 registered voters off the rolls. Even the Fonz was left off!
My name was left off the polling registry today on Los Angeles— Henry Winkler (@hwinkler4real) June 6, 2018
LA County is enormous, with more residents than 40 of the 50 states, so this is a huge error impacting an enormous number of people. In theory, eligible voters mistakenly left off the rolls were able to cast provisional ballots and should have their votes counted — though of course there’s no way of knowing how many mistakenly eliminated voters ended up frustrated and not voting — which will only exacerbate the notoriously slow vote-counting.
It appears unlikely that this impacted any closely contested races in a meaningful way, but it’s unfortunate for the citizens affected and a black eye for the county and the state.
Winner: the Democratic establishment
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has committed a lot of ideological heresies over the years for a senator from a solidly liberal state, ranging from endorsing the Iraq War to voting for the 2001 Bush tax cuts. As a result, she attracted a primary challenge in state Sen. Kevin de León — yet she appears positioned to easily brush back her opponent, who carried a measly 11 percent of the vote.
The spin from de León’s camp is that for an incumbent to finish below 50 percent is a sign of weakness, but a bit over 30 percent of the vote in the race was fragmented across a variety of Republican candidates. De León’s entire pitch against Feinstein is that he’s the true progressive alternative to the more-moderate-than-you’d-think-given-the-state Feinstein, but to beat her, he needed to secure a bunch of Republicans’ votes — and there’s no good reason for a Republican to vote for him.
This dynamic, incidentally, helps explain why much of the state’s Democratic Party has learned to live with the top-two primary system even though it creates trouble for them in many cases. The system makes it extremely difficult to challenge an incumbent from the left, and incumbents like it that way.
Beyond Feinstein, all the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue recruits in California successfully moved on to the general election, building on a string of wins for the party committee that began earlier in the night in New Jersey and Iowa.